Archive for category Reconstruction

Reconstruction: Full-circle

February 1866 saw the Northern states, and the Republican-led Union government, deep in the trenches of Presidential Reconstruction.  Andrew Johnson’s leniency toward the former Confederate states precipitated the enactment of Black Codes that tightly proscribed the lives of former slaves; the election of former Confederates to local, regional, and national offices; and widespread maltreatment of Freedmen, Unionists, and Union officials living and working in the south.

Reconstruction was never billed in any way to be an easy process.  Lincoln had not settled on a particular course of action, nor had his cabinet any miraculous insights into a resolution of the problem of rejoining the southern states to the Union.  The difficulties were immense.  The challenges nearly overwhelming.  The dangers of Reconstruction going badly would have rippling consequences.

Arguments in the Union Congress toward the end of the war varied greatly on how best to accomplish the task of Reconstruction.  There were moderate views, hard-line views, though no consensus came.  Northern legislators feared the defeated South would be unrepentant toward their victors, and like a snake in the grass, strike at those that threatened them.  This fear was not unfounded as the initial year post-war came to reveal.  No one in the North believed that the South would simply acquiesce to terms, nor were Northern legislators so naive to think there would be no backlash to Northern occupation of the South after the war.  But, the extent of the backlash and the utter vengeful quality of the Southern response shocked and angered the North.  To better understand Southern rejection of Reconstruction, it helps to revisit the rhetoric of the Secession Crisis.

Lincoln’s election in 1860 sent shock-waves through the South. In response, Secession Commissioners were sent out from several of the slave states to drum up support for the creation of a Southern Confederacy.  These commissioners, as Charles B. Dew describes in his book Apostles of Disunion:  Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, were a mix of radical and moderate pro-slavery voices.  The commissioners identified as both Democrats and Whigs, but they had in common a consistent Southern message based on white supremacy, and the rejection of the “Black Republican” government of Lincoln based on threat of annihilation of the Southern way of life.

Stephen Hale was a Secession Commissioner from Alabama tasked with bringing Kentucky into the secession fold.  Unable to meet with the Kentucky legislature, Hale drafted a letter to Kentucky’s governor Beriah Magoffin, in which he outlined the argument supporting secession. A passionate Southern-rights Whig, Hale’s letter encapsulated the Southern argument, and serves as a perfect example of why Reconstruction would have such difficulties.

Hale wrote,

…the election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed not simply as a change of administration, but as the inauguration of new principles and a new theory of government, and even as the downfall of slavery.  Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property, and her institutions; nothing less than an open declaration of war, for the triumph of this new theory of government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans….The slave-holder and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate; all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life, or else there will be an eternal war of races, desolating the land with blood, and utterly wasting and destroying all the resources of the country.¹

Hale’s rhetoric was the heart of the Confederate will, and no amount of Reconstruction would erase the entrenched social and cultural views on race held by Southerners, nor would it erase the antagonism toward the “Black Republicans” who forced them into a new political, economic, and social order.  Political reconstruction could be possible, but social reconstruction would never be possible when the Southern heart took Hale’s words as sacrosanct.

The views that Hale proffered were generations old, and as the South contemplated its collective losses precipitated by the war, resentment and revenge smoldered in the crucible of the day. Reconstruction would not change the minds of the former slave South on questions of racial equality.  Reconstruction would require those members of the Old South who wished to move beyond the war, to proclaim oaths of loyalty to the Union.  But these oaths, honestly or fervently given, could not erase the deep seated animosity toward a forced acceptance of a new world order.

It isn’t that Reconstruction failed, or was doomed to fail, but instead that Reconstruction was a necessary process to restore former Confederate states to a functional status in a re-formed Union.  The necessity of this restoration or reunification meant only that Southerners had to reject former political organization to an extent believable by the North.  Southern acceptance of the new political environment would only go as far as necessary in order to provide political power, with which the South would be positioned to refuse the new economic and social organizations imposed by a Republican government it only grudgingly recognized as legitimate.

Hale’s letter is an excellent example of why Reconstruction was fraught with insubordination to Northern victory.  The Southern heart would never be swayed by political processes that destroyed the social and economic order of the Old South.

Dew argues that slavery was always at the heart of the secession crisis, and the ultimate cause of the Civil War, and further was precipitated not solely from Northern abolitionist cells, but directly as a result of Southern protectionism of the institution of slavery.  Revisiting the writings and speeches of the Secession Commissioners also gives insight into the response of the South to Reconstruction, and further into the rise of Jim Crow in the post-Reconstruction years.

¹ S.F. Hale to Governor Beriah Magoffin of Kentucky, Frankfort, KY, 27 December 1860, in Apostles of Disunion:  Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, Charles B. Dew (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 90-103.





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Reconstruction as a Temporal Construct

It is easy to forget that historians divide the past into arbitrary packets, either by time or event (or both), in order to make our work more manageable.  These packets have become so entrenched in the way history is taught and learned that we never question the nature of these temporal constructs.  Such is the case with the study of Reconstruction.  Though many textbooks begin the discussion of Reconstruction after the surrender at Appomattox, Reconstruction and the restoration of the Union was of uppermost concern from the first day of secession for Lincoln and the federal government.

Lincoln’s vow to preserve the Union (from the day he was elected) indicated his firm commitment to policies geared toward the reconstruction of the United States. Though Lincoln (to our knowledge) never outlined a specific postbellum plan for the political restoration of the former Confederate states, he did trial runs in states like Louisiana where Reconstruction-like practices were implemented, in order to assess potential solutions to the most vexing problem of the American crisis.

As our discussion of Reconstruction ramps up, it is important to remember that Reconstruction was a process not an event. The day South Carolina seceded the process began. As Union forces moved south, and began to occupy rebel states, the process of reconstruction continued. When the first slave escaped to Union lines the process of reconstruction was occurring.  The more formalized transition of the south from a slave society to a free labor society, and the inherent incorporation of freed blacks into the political landscape of this society was a process of reconstruction.

Temporal constructs aside, the monumental task of bringing former rebel states back into the Union as functioning entities, whose constitutions and citizens upheld the civil rights of all Americans within their borders, was not a decade-long process but one which encompassed the years from 1860 through the 1960s.


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The Sesquicentennial of Reconstruction…

Much attention has been given to the sesquicentennial of the Civil War now winding down as April has passed, the anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox reverently marked by historians and the public.  But Americans are now entering the first year of a far more important series of 150th commemorations, those encompassing the Reconstruction years that followed Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.  Reconstruction…the term either rings familiarly or not, or with some vague recollection of Carpetbaggers and Scalawags culled from the recesses of memory of a long-forgotten high-school history class.   Often misunderstood when it is recognized at all, Reconstruction was a significant and tumultuous time in which the very fabric of the nation was not only resewn, but repatterned, recut, and stitched anew.  Presidential and Congressional powers were tested, stretched, and pushed to the limits; individual and collective rights were being defined and redefined; the social world had been torn asunder, challenging the way race and gender were considered; industrialization rapidly stratified society; and the fate of nearly four million lives was caught in the crossfire.

The collective American conclusion that the Civil War ended in April 1865 is mistaken. Reconstruction was filled with as many skirmishes and full-fledged battles as during official hostilities; sometimes fought with weapons, sometimes with words. But the battle of ideals never enjoyed a cease-fire, nor did either side accept surrender. Reconstruction was a different kind of war, but an extension of the same ferocious ideologies that sent millions of men to arms.

The bloody battles of Gettysburg and Antietam certainly capture the imagination, and there is no denying the formidable achievements obtained during the war itself. It is a forgone conclusion that the Union prevailing militarily over the Confederacy changed the lives of millions, but the years following the war, and the momentous events that transpired (the good and the bad) during Reconstruction are worthy of the same attention.    Numerous scholars have researched and published fantastic work on the Reconstruction era; it is high time the general public took more notice.

Join me as I commemorate the sesquicentennial years of Reconstruction.  It is my intent to illuminate the Reconstruction era for a new generation of Americans, a generation for whom time has graciously provided historical perspective.  I owe a debt of gratitude to those scholars who have worked tirelessly to inform and enlighten us on the topic: Eric Foner, Drew Gilpin Faust, Douglas Egerton, David Blight, Gary Gallagher, Bruce Levine, Nina Silber, Bruce Baker, David Brion Davis, Edward Blum, Paul Harvey, and the many other fine historians who bring the story of Reconstruction to the forefront of scholarly discourse.


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Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Defining Freedom

The fairest minds of all their [Freedmen’s Bureau] officials seems not to be able [to] comprehend the difference between the “nigger” freedman and the white northern laborer.  
–William McBurney to Thomas B. Ferguson, in a private letter dated February 1, 1866.  These two men were f
ormer slaveholders in Charleston, South Carolina.  McBurney writes about the advantages of paying contracts in cash wages versus paying in a share of crops.1 

You are now free, but you must know that the only difference you can feel yet, between slavery and freedom, is that neither you nor your children can be bought or sold.….Do not think of leaving the plantation where you belong.  If you try to go to Charleston, or any other city, you will find no work to do, and nothing to eat.  You will starve, or fall sick and die.  Stay where you are, in your own homes, even if you are suffering.  There is no better place for you anywhere else. 
–Part of a Speech to Freedpeople written by Capt. Charles C. Soule,
Chairman of Commission of Contracts, Orangeburg, South Carolina; June 12, 1865 in order to help the Freedpeople understand their new position in society.2 

Here is where secession was born and Nurtured   Here is were [sic] we have toiled nearly all Our lives as slaves and were treated like dumb Driven cattle,  This is our home,  we have made These lands what they are.  we were the only true and Loyal people that were found in possession [sic] of these Lands.  we have been always ready to strike for Liberty and humanity yea to fight if needs be To preserve this glorious union.  Shall not we who Are freedman and have been always true to this Union have the same rights as are enjoyed by Others?  Have we broken any Law of these United States?  Have we forfieted [sic]our rights of property In Land?
–Excerpt of a Letter to President Johnson written by Freedman Henry Bram on behalf of 2500 Freedpeople of Edisto Island, South Carolina, October 28, 1865 in response to being ordered to vacate the island upon the return of the property to former Confederate owners.3

Reconstruction in the post-Civil War South was a battleground of definitions. Definitions of law, of identity, of place, and of freedom filled the landscape as fully as the tensions that arose out of the need for such delineations. Though the particulars of location altered the fundamental way tensions and definitions manifested, defining the parameters of freedom became essential to the larger question of how former slaves would participate in their local communities; specifically, how Freedpeople would make a living for themselves and their families, or as Abraham Lincoln put it, to reap the fruits of their own labor. The question of defining law, identity, place, and freedom was not academic to these men and women as they struggled to adapt to their status as Freedpeople, and began to pursue the benefits of a free labor society.

Numerous historians, like Eric Foner, Bruce E. Baker, Brian Kelly, and Susan Eva O’Donovan have explored Reconstruction through lenses that magnify the delicate political, economic, and social landscapes that former slaves had to navigate in a post-slavery society. One of the enduring contributions to come out of Civil War and Reconstruction studies is the argument of “black agency,” which posits that slaves and then Freedpeople were not simply pawns but actively engaged in all aspects of their emancipation, and in the formation of their post-slavery lives. The topic of “black agency” is not relegated to emancipation, and has touched off a significant re-evaluation of the way in which the labor of the post-slavery South is being considered.   This trend in Reconstruction scholarship is actually inspired by an argument posited years ago by W.E.B. DuBois. In his Black Reconstruction in America, published in 1935, DuBois argues in part that the Civil War was a general strike by slaves against slaveholders. By defining the actions slaves took to subvert their bondage “a strike,” DuBois illustrated an altered way in which to view the Civil War and Reconstruction; in essence, Southern race and class struggles were relatable to the labor/capital problem faced in the North. When viewed from the position of class conflict and not race, Reconstruction takes on whole new meanings, not unlike the labor conflicts faced by many Northern and Western communities during the late nineteenth century that centered on ethnicity. But, excluding the racial component from the class component when discussing nineteenth century labor relations is foolhardy, especially as racial intolerance was still widely prevalent everywhere. This is not to say that race and class did not combine in ways unique to each community in the North, and in ways unique to the South, making generalizations dangerous.

Examinations of postbellum labor contracts, Freedmen’s Bureau documents, court cases, and letters, like those from which the above excerpts are taken, gives a fuller understanding of who was working, for how much, and under what conditions. The old vision of former slaves laboring with their “40 acres and a mule” is slowly being replaced by more developed images of the diversity of work done by former slaves: from sharecropping to serving in the state legislature, and everything in between.   Yet, analysis of labor in the South also illuminates disturbing aspects of a depressed, post-slavery society: significant poverty, child indentures, and abuse of former slaves. The exploration of the labor aspect of Reconstruction shows that though emancipated, and regardless of intelligence or education or financial position, the de-capitalization of human property did not guarantee that Freedpeople would be viewed as equal, nor could they easily exercise their new-found freedom.

Even after the fall of Richmond, surrounded by Union troops, and flush with the promises that emancipation offered, Albert Brooks found his ability to navigate freedom’s waters bumpy. Brooks was a former slave who had purchased his freedom prior to the start of the Civil War.  Brooks, along with a partner, established a successful taxi service in the city of Richmond, which they ran for ten years prior to the end of the war. This is no mean feat considering Brooks did this in the heart of the Confederacy, at a time when the politics of race, property, and disunion were being stirred into a frenzy, and were most likely argued in the very conveyances Brooks managed. His enterprise consisted of ten “hacks” as he referred to them, and twenty-two horses, valued over $10,000 until the war began. The Rebels confiscated all but one of his horses and burned seven of his taxis, leaving Brooks with little. He was able to recover somewhat, and had built his business back to five buggies and ten horses when the end of the war came and Union troops occupied Richmond. Following proper procedure, both Brooks and his partner sought out Federal authorities where they took a loyalty oath to the Union, paid $12.50 each for licenses to continue doing business and received papers of protection which allowed them safe passage around the city. Yet on June 6, 1865 Brooks was arrested.  He was jailed for not having the proper papers, despite showing the credentials he had previously obtained, and because he was black was assumed to have been a former slave though he did not belong in the same category as emancipated Freedmen of the area, as he had bought his freedom years earlier. In a statement given about the incident, Brooks states it best:

I asked him what I was to do to prevent being arrested and taken from my business again. He said I must have some white master to give me a pass to show that I was employed. I said if I must have a master, I would have some of these Union men. I went to Asst. Provost Marshal Chas. Warren, 11th C. I. And asked him if he would be my master and give me a pass. He said he would. I asked him if my oath and permit, and licence and the seal of the U. S. were not sufficient—he would not answer. I said don’t deceive me again. You told me before that these papers were sufficient—give me something now that will protect me—he than [sic] gave me a pass which I am obliged to show to Mayor’s police, who stop on nearly every corner of the street and make it nearly impossible for me to carry on my business.4

Brooks’s story is important in that it shows how race was influential even to those soldiers working toward the cause of emancipation, especially in the blurring of identity. Brooks was a former slave who chose to make his home in Richmond after purchasing his freedom, stayed in Richmond for the duration of the war, endured confiscation by Rebels, and yet identified himself as a part of Richmond, and thus the Southern community. Considering Union officials outsiders, Brooks nonetheless sought them out as his sole solution to his problem of safe passage in the area. But the interruptions to his work, and his inability to vouch for himself and the men he employed, shows how even under emancipation, race was a tremendous obstacle to assertions of freedom.

Current scholarship does not lack a rich and varied exploration of the political and economic ramifications of the labor aspect of Reconstruction. In 2013, The After Slavery Project  published a collection of essays on “Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South.” Each of the historians mentioned earlier has contributed material to this volume, and to a companion website, dedicated to viewpoints that have heretofore been underexplored regarding labor in the post-emancipation South. Douglas R. Egerton just published The Wars of Reconstruction:  The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era which further reflects upon the ways that violent actions toward former slaves derailed the promises Reconstruction offered to blacks, and the Unites States as a whole in the late 19th century.  These projects serve to broaden our understanding of Reconstruction, which is still misunderstood and largely mythologized by a majority of Americans today.

The address written by Capt. Soule, which began this post, illuminates the challenge of defining freedom or any other condition of humanity: he who interprets the condition is as important as he who wields the power to define it. As freedom relates to the ability to profit by the sweat of one’s brow, exploring the way in which Freedpeople and blacks in general were defined by officials, by former masters, and by themselves helps to clarify the complex environment in which they made their homes, raised their families, and most importantly, were able to participate in the market economies of their communities.


1. Low Country Digital Library,,1102

2. Capt. Charles C. Soule to Maj. Gen’l. O. O. Howard, 12 June 1865, enclosing an address “To the Freed People of Orangeburg District,” [June 1865], and Maj Gen. O. O Howard to Captain Charles C. Soule, 21 June 1865, all filed as S-17 1865, Letters Received, ser. 15, Washington Headquarters, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives; Freedmen & Southern Society Project , Published in Land and Labor, 1865, pp. 215–22.

3. Henry Bram et al. to the President of these United States, 28 Oct. 1865, filed as P-27 1865, Letters Received, ser. 15, Washington Headquarters, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives, Freedmen & Southern Society Project, Published in Land and Labor, 1865, pp. 442–44.

4. Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Virginia Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865 – 1869. National Archives Microfilm Publication M1048, Roll 59, “Statements Relating to Abuses of Freedmen in Richmond,” (accessed November 18, 2013).


For Further Reading:

W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction In America

Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877

Bruce E. Baker and Brian Kelly, eds., After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South

Alex Lichtenstein, “Was the Emancipated Slave a Proletarian?”

Douglas R. Egerton, The Wars of Reconstruction:  The Brief Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era

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